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"SpongeBob SquarePants" out to make a splash on Broadway

"SpongeBob SquarePants," a cartoon denizen of the deep, is making his Broadway debut. Our David Pogue has a preview: 

"SpongeBob SquarePants" has been on the Nickelodeon TV Channel for 18 years and is still going strong. It tells absurdist tales of an optimistic sea sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea, along with his saltwater pals.

But once you've made 250 TV episodes, two movies, a comic book, a video-game series, three music albums, and a theme-park ride, where do you go from there?

To the Great White Way, of course! "SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical" opens in New York on Monday. But if you're imagining actors dancing around inside giant SpongeBob heads, you're mistaken.

"I thought what they were asking me to come in about was kind of a theme park show with big mascot costume heads, and so I said no," said Tina Landau, the musical's director and co-conceiver.

"And he said, 'Well, wait a minute, Steve Hillenburg, the creator of the show, comes from experimental animation, and is a marine biologist, and he's really interested in some form that is 'indie,' is what they called it."

Translation: Landau set out to find offbeat way to suggest the "SpongeBob" characters, without precisely reproducing them.

SpongeBob SquarePantsThe Broadway Musical for Everyone
Ethan Slater stars as SpongeBob in "SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical," inspired by the animated cartoon series. Nickelodeon/Joan Marcus

"We were nervous," said Landau. "I guess the biggest question we had is, what will kids think of SpongeBob? But one of my favorite comments ever was someone said to us afterwards, 'I loved it because I got to see what SpongeBob looks like in real life.'"

As it turns out, he looks a lot like newcomer Ethan Slater.

He told Pogue, "I had never tried a SpongeBob voice. I had never tried a SpongeBob laugh. So I just came into the audition, and Tina said, like, 'Great job, really like, love what you're doing. Come back in and do the voice. That's sort of important!'"

Gavin Lee plays Squidward the Octopus. Nickelodeon/Joan Marcus

But he's got the laugh down pat now. 

Slater is joined by Danny Skinner (who plays Patrick the Starfish); Lilli Cooper (who plays Sandy the Squirrel); and Gavin Lee (who plays Squidward the Octopus).

"Well, first thing I'll say is, I'm really glad that I'm not in a big sponge Squidward costume, 'cause I don't know whether I would have wanted to do the job," Lee said.

So, what elements of the cartoon are present?

"I think to start, it is immediately, recognizably 'SpongeBob,'" said Slater. "From the sky flowers, to the colors, to the palette, the jokes feel like the characters that you know and love."

Skinner's character, Patrick, is kind of a dumb guy. "Oh, he's not dumb. He's just smart in a different way."

Tony Award-winner David Zinn designed the sets and costumes. He's packed the show with everything from giant Rube Goldberg-type contraptions to Squidward's four-legged costume.

SpongeBob SquarePantsThe Broadway Musical for Everyone
The cast of "SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical." The charm and humor of the Nickelodeon cartoon set in the undersea world of Bikini Bottom is now live on stage. Joan Marcus

A tap-dancing octopus isn't the only surprise; the songs come from a pantheon of pop stars, including Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, David Bowie and Aerosmith. 

One of the musical performers is in full view of the audience during the show: percussionist Mike Dobson. He's a one-man sound effects department. He said his busiest moment in the show is the opening number, "where Spongebob comes to say hello to me. He says, 'Oh, hello, guy-making-all-the-sounds! And we do this little sequence that he goes crazy with."

"Did you go to school for that?" Pogue asked.

"Yeah. Conservatory! It's very serious stuff."

Whether the "SpongeBob" musical is a hit or a flop, Landau says that she has loved the journey. She's been working on it, on and off, for ten years -- and, in a way, her whole life.

"When I was little, I wanted to be a director or an oceanographer," she said. "And it took me a really long time to figure out that the two are related, in that they're both about entering worlds that are other than our everyday waking lives.

"And I feel like, yeah, we're creating some hybrid experience of being in the theater, and being underwater, and being in a carnival, and a rock concert, and a party all at once!"

You can stream the original Broadway cast album of "SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical" by clicking on the embed below (Free Spotify registration required to hear full tracks):

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